[Bruce Dixon provides an important (but beginning) critique of the new Stanley Nelson film, which portrays the Panther’s iconic nature as helpful survival programs and electioneering. The film shows the Panthers as beaten by police, but gives no lessons for contemporary self-defense or revolutionary systemic challenge. The film in this sense plays a similar role as SELMA: a superficial memorial. The strengths and weaknesses of the film are being discussed and debated. Reactionaries and white supremacists hate it, liberals love it, but revolutionary organizers today will not find it contributing much to the materials which could guide new efforts on the ground today. — Frontlines ed.]
Stanley Nelson’s documentary on the BPP is “history” by and for lazy American liberals. He turns the BPP into a pop culture icon a T-shirt. Nelson mentions guns hundreds of times, big naturals and swagger a few dozen times but not the word “socialism” once in 2 hours. The BPP described its Breakfast For Children and Free Medical Clinics every day as “socialism” in person and in our newspaper, to each other and to the neighborhoods we served.
“Vanguard of the Revolution” is Liberal History, Strips and Omits Socialism from History of the Black Panther Party
by Black Agenda Report managing editor Bruce A.Dixon, February 17, 2016
“Stanley Nelson is what Americans call a “liberal” and that’s what Vanguard of the Revolution is…. a liberal’s take on the BPP….”
I used to have a Che Guevara T-shirt. It was a pretty good shirt, but it told me nothing about the man or his life’s work. It had Che’s face on it, but by itself the face is just a pop culture icon, shorthand or short-brain for everything you want to know, or everything think you already know about it. That’s what Stanley Nelson’s film, Black Panthers, Vanguard of the Revolution does to the Black Panther Party. He made the movement of my youth an icon. A T-shirt.
On the plus side, it’s a pretty good T-shirt. Vanguard of the Revolution contains some great interview footage from Erika Huggins, Elaine Brown, the freedom fighting Freeman brothers and Wayne Pharr, my old comrade Michael McCarty and several others. On the minus side, Nelson omits and obscures the domestic and global political context the BPP came out of and thrived in. According to Vanguard of the Revolution, the BPP arose out of black northern frustration after the passage of civil rights legislation. It caught on due to the irresistible appeal of its naturals, big guns, the murdermouthing rhetoric of Eldridge Cleaver, downright sexiness, and black is beautiful, all of which earned the BPP pop culture stardom. And pop culture stardom needs no further explanation. Cue the music, fists in the air, and power to the people…
In Nelson’s universe, the BPP splintered due to counterintelligence operations launched against it by the government, it withered because of brutal nationwide repression and was swamped with waves of police informants. It died when rank and file members who did all the work became exhausted, burnt out, and in some cases disillusioned by the personal antics of BPP co-founder Huey Newton, which are examined at some length.
Like my old Che T-shirt, Nelson’s BPP has no historical context. The film maker doesn’t tell us, or maybe doesn’t know himself what changed about 1971 to cause the shrinkage of the BPP that led to its concentration in Oakland by 1973 for the mayoral campaign of Bobby Seale. He doesn’t tell us why national liberation movements from southern Africa to Vietnam to Palestine and the governments of nonaligned Algeria and socialist Cuba reached out to and cooperated with the BPP. Were they in love with our guns and nappy hairstyles too? The best Nelson offers is that like the Cubans and Algerians and African revolutionaries, the BPP was “anti-American.”
Stanley Nelson is what Americans call a “liberal” and that’s what Vanguard of the Revolution is…. a liberal’s take on the BPP. They were black and beautiful, they had some interesting things to say, and mostly didn’t deserve what they got. They were pop superstars, but hey, stardom comes and goes. American liberals like to pretend that the US global empire doesn’t exist, or is benign, and that its operations don’t much affect what goes on at home. And liberals know to steer clear of any favorable mentions of socialism, or communism, or criticisms of capitalism.
Near the beginning of the film Nelson mentions the admonition to black men that their fight is at home, not overseas. Here’s some context. When I was 18 in 1968, I too heard people repeating “Black man your fight is at home, not in Vietnam.” I heard it from guys I knew a couple years older fresh back from the US draftee army in Vietnam. They told us the VietCong — Vietnamese guerillas fighting the US invaders in their country would shout to them in English at night across the razor wire “Black man why are you here? Your fight is at home!” That’s the context, and we talked about it in the BPP political education classes and the BPP newspaper. I learned soon after that the elder brothers of these VietCong, the Vietminh had asked the same question the same way in French to African colonial troops brought in to reassert French control over that country in the 1940s and 50s.
Unlike Stanley Nelson, those of us tuned into the movement of that day were not just thinking inside the US. The wars against colonialism and apartheid in Africa were on our mind, and the US war in Vietnam, where the draftee army at the time made combat units disproportionately black and brown made the black stake in US global empire something we could not and did not ignore. The BPP and many radical blacks outside the BPP saw ourselves as part of a trans-national, a global movement against racist colonialism and capitalism, and for socialism. We said so every chance we got, and there is plenty of archival footage to back it up much of it just before and after the clips used in the film. It was Nelson’s choice not to use any of that, and not to query any of his interviewees about it, unless that footage is still on the cutting room floor.
The BPP tried to draw lessons from revolutions in China and the USSR, from the Cuban experience at combating racism, from the writings and speeches of African revolutionaries. We reached out to that global movement as well as we were able, given our youth and inexperience, and it reached back to us. The Cubans, Algerians, the revolutionary movements around the world didn’t open their doors to the Black Panther Party because they liked our hairstyles or music or big talk or big guns. They didn’t do it, as someone in Nelson’s film said with a straight face, because we were “anti-Americans”. They did it because they recognized the BPP as part of that global movement.
“Nelson doesn’t explain why the BPP had wide support among whites, especially young whites up till 1971. The reason wasn’t pop culture stardom, big naturals, guns and big talk. It was the draft and the US war in Vietnam….”
When we talked about the BPP’s Breakfast for Children program we called it socialism. That was how we explained it and the party’s food giveaways and free medical clinics to the people in the neighborhoods and that was how we understood it. This too was all over the BPP newspaper, but Nelson missed or omitted that too. In our poitical education classes, many of which I led in Chicago, we studied Marx and Engels and Lenin. We read Amilcar Cabral and Paulo Freire. We discussed Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, the daily newspapers and our own Black Panther newspaper. Our paper had articles from North Korea, from South Africa, from China and Vietnam. None of that shows up in Nelson’s film.
The BPP wasn’t destroyed by direct police repression either. In Chicago where I was, we never enjoyed more public support than in the weeks after Fred Hampton was murdered in Chicago, and the following week when the LAPD beseiged our Southern California office in Los Angeles.
Nelson doesn’t explain why the BPP had wide support among whites, especially young whites up till 1971. The reason wasn’t pop culture stardom, big naturals, guns and big talk. It was the draft and the US war in Vietnam. The draft de-legitimized the government among young whites to the extent that many were willing to support a black revolutionary movement which also denounced the war, the draft and militarism along with much else at home. When the draft ended in 1971 and the masses of US troops came home, white support for the BPP evaporated like snow in the springtime, and along with burnout and such led to the decision to concentrate the organization’s remaining resources in Oakland for Bobby Seale’s mayoral run.
Stanley Nelson is no doubt a fine film maker, and for all I know a good guy. What he ain’t is a historian of 20th century radical movements. He renders the BPP through his own liberal lens and blind spots. His film strips the BPP from its historical and political context to get the icon that liberals imagine explains everything and leaves out the unpalatable socialist politics. Vanguard of the Revolution is a T-shirt. A really good one, but a T-shirt. I don’t blame the man, he’s not alone. Henry Louis Gates’ TV special did exactly the same thing. So did Jakobi Williamsand so have many other books and treatments of the BPP. Removing socialism from histories and discussions of the BPP has become pretty much the standard liberal thing to do. It would have been surprising if Nelson had done anything else.
Mistaking Vanguard of the Revolution for a real history of the BPP puts the film maker’s liberal blinders on young black activists looking for clues. It directs them away from questioning capitalism, from investigating socialism, from appreciating the influence from and upon the global movement for peace, justice and socialism upon our movement here inside the US. With this stuff as the historical standard it’s no wonder a generation of activists are seeking individual validation and stardom, Facebook likes and Twitter followers instead of questioning real authority and educating themselves and their communities to struggle for power.
If we want to understand the meaning of black radical movements like the BPP we’ll need to hear from some black radical historians. So far nothing comes close to the grasp of the BPP, its rise, fall, its intent, impact, context and historical significance exhibited in Waldo Martin and Joshua Bloom’s Black Against Empire. It’s a high standard to meet, but it shouldn’t be impossible.
I’ve already got a BPP T-shirt I can wear. I don’t need another one that lasts an hour and 55 minutes.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.